The marching band was blaring in the high-school gym, but down the corridor in the choir room there was a command-center hush. It was George W. Bush's first day on the campaign trail with the liegeman who had become his favorite (and was now his official) sidekick. Dick Cheney, secretary of Defense for Bush's father, quietly worked the phones in the back room while his Boss--son of the Old Boss--held court out front about his running mate. "He's a very calming person," Bush told NEWSWEEK. "He doesn't have a lot to say until he's ready to say it." Calls done, Cheney emerged. The Clinton-Gore administration, he solemnly said, had led America "astray." He was eager to "go back" to Washington to set things right. And how did he envision his role in what Bush calls a "partnership"? Cheney began to answer--until Bush cut him off. "I haven't described it yet,"
Bush said. "But I know this: he's going to be at my side."
The Republicans stage their four-day convention in Philadelphia this week, an extravaganza of upbeat and inclusive stagecraft designed to give the GOP a springy "bounce" heading into the fall. But the essence of Bush's campaign--and his presidency, if there is one--was on display in that choir room at Cheney's old high school in Casper, Wyo. It's a back-to-the-future enterprise. Bush is in charge--he wanted to make that clear in the choir room. Yet this is a boardroom vision in which sober-minded men of means decide to enter public service quietly, cautiously--as a team.
Bush wants to bring the "armies of compassion" to Washington and a sense of decorum to the Oval Office. But by picking one of his father's trusted advisers as his own running mate, he underscored something else: his unspoken desire to avenge the bitter loss of a man both hold dear, George Herbert Walker Bush. In 1992, the patriarch was defeated by men the Bush clan viewed as usurpers: Bill Clinton and Al Gore. Now the Old Man's son is back, hoping to beat Vice President Gore by offering himself as the CEO--and the superbly credentialed Cheney (the mastermind of Desert Storm) as the COO. It's the 21st-century American version of a restoration.
Voters--especially men--seemed to like the idea. In the NEWSWEEK Poll Bush moved out to a seven-point lead (47-40 percent) over Gore, a six-point gain from a month ago. Bush lengthened his lead over Gore on personal questions. Sixty-seven percent of those polled think he has "strong leadership qualities," compared with 52 percent who say that of Gore. By a 64-24 percent margin, voters believe Bush is "honest and ethical"; Gore's margin on the same question is 56-33. And Bush has pulled nearly even on the question of who is "intelligent and well informed." He is viewed that way by a 73-19 margin; Gore's score is 77-17. The Cheney selection impressed independents, who support Bush by a 47-31 margin. The contestants are virtually tied among women, but Bush hit a home run among men, where he now leads by an astonishing 51-34 margin.
Despite its appearance of caution, the Cheney choice was, in some ways, a bold pick. Bush ignored the usual considerations--Electoral College votes (Cheney's from Wyoming) or pizzazz on the campaign trail (the publicly colorless Cheney has none). A born politician with a catlike sense of danger, Bush knew the biggest fear in the minds of voters: that he might be out of his depth, at least at first, in the Oval Office. So instead of the Kennedyesque lonely-man-at-the-top model, he proposes a corporate alternative. "The presidency is about building a team," Bush said. "It's not about one man." The theory also echoes another central Bush message: the need to replace "partisanship and cynicism" with a Bush-led Era of Good Feeling.
To Democrats, that's just a convenient excuse for not discussing the issues, and an attempt to pre-empt their inevitable populist lines of attack against a charming man they insist is getting a free ride. "He won't be able to run his whole campaign from 30,000 feet," vows Gore media adviser Bob Shrum. Democrats, in fact, were quick to hoot at the team, and at Cheney in particular. The choice, they said, gave them the rare chance to run as successful incumbents--bragging about the economy--and yet also as agents of change fighting a return to the past. Cheney, they noted, had worked for Nixon and Ford as well as Bush, and had compiled one of the most conservative (and least "compassionate") voting records in Congress.
More important, they said, in choosing Cheney Bush had not just adopted a boardroom view, but the social isolation that can come with it. A Texas oil-industry executive for the past five years, Cheney gives the GOP an "all-Big Oil ticket" Democrats hope will play badly in states hard hit by rising gasoline prices. More generally, Democrats saw the GOP ticket as Central Casting villains--wealthy white males from upper-income America--in the us-versus-them psywar they were already preparing to run. "They represent the men's club view of the world," said Shrum. "They couldn't be more out of touch."
The NEWSWEEK Poll shows that the ground for such attacks is shaky. Voters were divided (40-40) when asked whether a Bush-Cheney administration would be "dominated by an old guard"--though of course some voters might regard that as a good thing. But only a third of those polled (35 percent) think the restoration presidency would be "influenced too much by Big Oil." In fact, the Bush camp was hoping that Gore would be lured into focusing on such pointillistic, issue-by-issue attacks in search of individual nodes of votes. "You've only got a certain amount of time in this game," said one top adviser, "and the more time they spend going negative, the less time they have to pull Gore out of the hole Bill Clinton has put him in."
Still, as Gore hunkered down in North Carolina to consider his own presidential options, he was said to be eager for the unexpected chance to attack a generation-long Republican record. He was keeping his own counsel on his veep preferences. Some Democrats urged him to look for a state to secure, such as Florida or Illinois. Others urged him to pick a youngish running mate. The idea was to draw a contrast with Cheney (who is 59 but looks older) and to amplify Gore's own image of New Economy savvy. Hot names late last week were familiar to the Great Mentioner: Sens. Evan Bayh of Indiana, John Kerry of Massachusetts and John Edwards of North Carolina. Gore is expected to decide this weekend and announce it early next week.
Cheney got good reviews as a man of substance, but the critics--some Republicans among them--raised questions about how he was chosen. Bush had picked him last spring for the delicate task of "vetting" running mates. In the end, Bush decided that the man he wanted was the gatekeeper himself. Suddenly, Bush himself had to take over a hurried and at times seemingly perfunctory process with the last-minute assistance of his father--who had given a thumbs-up to Cheney long before. Democrats questioned the former president's influence, and even some Republicans groused about a stacked deck. At least 11 other contenders had spent weeks gathering data and filling out forms--only to submit them to the man whose inside track rendered their labors moot.
In fact, Bush told NEWSWEEK, he'd first become impressed with Cheney last summer, during sessions in Austin to help brief Bush on issues. Unbeknown to other briefers, Cheney would arrive a day early and spend the evening at the governor's mansion talking with Bush, subtly preparing him for the skull sessions to come. Bush could safely reveal what he knew--and didn't know--to a man whose discretion and trustworthiness had been vouched for by the former president. "I really got to know him when he started coming down to Austin," Bush said. "We stayed up and visited. My regard for him grew a lot during those times."
Indeed, Bush marveled to others at the time about the wonders of Dick Cheney. Here was a self-effacing man's man who'd helped shape his dad's finest moment; an insider of knowledge and gravity and yet with a wry, Western sense of humor; a lover of fly-fishing and a man with a heart bypass who skied fearlessly down the steepest of slopes at breakneck speed. "He was in awe of the guy even then," said a top Bush adviser.
The moment Bush wrapped up the GOP nomination on March 7, his attention turned to the vice presidency. He began calling his father for a "read" on various possibilities--apparently more often than anyone realized. "The phone calls would go something like this," Bush recalled. "I'd say: 'Dad, has he got good judgment? Is he a sound thinker? When he says something does he mean it?' " In Cheney's case, the questions produced an "easy answer," Bush said. The father had only good things to say. And why not? He had trusted Cheney with the lives of American servicemen during the gulf war of 1991.
Last spring Bush asked Cheney if he would be willing to consider the veep slot. Cheney said no, instead agreeing to be vetter in chief. Some in Bush's circle saw the move as an effort to persuade Colin Powell--whom Cheney had chosen to be chairman of the Joint Chiefs--to join the ticket. Powell declined. Through spring and early summer Bush's attention turned to others. They included Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge, a pro-choice Roman Catholic who turned out to have too troublesome a relationship with a local bishop; Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating, also Catholic and a close Bush ally, but who otherwise didn't add much dimension to the ticket, and former senator John Danforth, whose quiet religiosity and Missouri roots appealed to Bush, but who really wasn't eager for the job. Sen. John McCain, the media's adoration aside, wasn't in the running--but will campaign with Bush next week in search of "swing voters" before the Democratic convention begins Aug. 15 in Los Angeles.
Bush came back to Cheney at a picnic at his ranch in Crawford, Texas, on July 3. Once Cheney agreed to be considered, Dubya had a problem: who would vet the vetter? The answer: he would, with help. Bush didn't have to start from scratch. There were three FBI "full field" investigations during the course of Cheney's career, an exhaustive confirmation-hearing report. And of course Cheney had received the highest possible security clearance as secretary of Defense. Bush asked campaign manager Joe Allbaugh to review Cheney's congressional record. It turned out to contain some embarrassingly out-of-the-mainstream votes, but apparently none that Bush or Allbaugh deemed problematic. Asked if any of Cheney's votes had given him pause, Bush answered: "No, not really."
But there were other matters, too, and Cheney raised them on his own. One involved his health history. "He said, 'I've had a heart issue'," Bush recalled. "I said, 'Oh, really?' Of course I knew about it, but I didn't know the extent. I hadn't reviewed his files." Cheney forwarded his medical files and slipped off to be examined by his doctors in Washington, who gave him a clean bill of health. Bush, operating entirely on his own, decided he wanted more. "I needed a second opinion," Bush explained. "It was a Sunday, and we had just gotten out of church. I called my dad and said, 'Listen, you know Denton Cooley well. Would you mind checking with him to see if he would review Dick Cheney's records?' By the time I got home there was a phone call from Denton Cooley!" Going over the records the next day, Cooley--at 79 still one of the world's most famous heart surgeons--called back. "He said, 'He's good to go'."
There was one other topic, and Cheney brought that up, too, Bush said. He wanted Bush to know that his younger daughter, Mary, is openly gay. "My response to his revelation was that 'I know you love your daughter, and I respect the fact that you love your daughter a lot'." Cheney was standing nearby in the choir room as Bush spoke. A private man, Cheney understandably bristled when the subject arose. "I love my daughters very much," he said, his voice thickening with emotion. "I am very proud of them. I am running for vice president. Their private lives are private."
Bush agreed, but as the out-front member of the team he took the opportunity to give a brief "compassionate conservative" sermon on love and tolerance. "Dick brought it up, and my answer is: this is a family that loves each other--deeply loves each other," Bush said. "That's all that matters to me. This is a mother and dad who care a lot about their children, and it speaks volumes about them as people."
When all the issues were vetted, Bush made the formal offer to Cheney on Tuesday, July 25--and Cheney accepted. Cheney, at some point in the last crucial days, connected with the former president. "I've talked with him," Cheney said. "But I talk with him periodically. I mean this is a transaction between me and the governor."
And then they left the choir room and headed for the airport--together. Two days later they were at a rally in Springdale, Ark. Cheney, vowing to help "restore dignity and integrity to Washington," spoke in the subdued tones of Mr. Inside, the COO who keeps the paper moving. His CEO was the ebullient cheerleader. "I found the right man in Dick Cheney!" Bush shouted. On Nov. 7 the voters will decide whether they think he's right, but in the meantime they looked like happy men--partners in fact as well as in name.